Battling addiction and ready for treatment?
Recognizing Indicators of Food Addiction
Food addiction can be challenging to spot and is not recognized as an official diagnosis in psychiatry, but many physicians diagnose and treat patients for food addiction.
However, the first important step in food addiction recovery is learning the warning signs of food addiction.
By familiarizing yourself with these warning signs, you can better identify the signs of food addiction and seek treatment to improve overall physical and mental wellness.
Top 8 Warning Signs of Food Addiction
Food addiction is the compulsive urge to eat certain trigger foods to feel pleasure. While food addiction can overlap with eating disorders, food addiction is a behavioral addiction caused by the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It is usually tied to certain types of food.
Food addicts typically experience a loss of control when eating trigger foods, eating large amounts of food before they can stop themselves. Highly palatable foods high in sugar, fats, and salts are most likely to trigger reactions in the brain that cause feelings of pleasure.
1. Intense Cravings For a Specific Food Despite Feeling Full
We’ve all likely craved dessert after a heavy dinner, but the craving goes much more profound for people with food addiction. Despite having a full stomach, the urge for trigger foods (i.e., highly palatable foods) can be more powerful than the sensation of being stuffed.
In this way, food addiction systems can overlap with binge eating disorders, as many food addicts may eat to the point of becoming ill.
However, the difference is that food addicts are chasing the “high” caused by the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system once the trigger food is consumed.
2. Eating Way More Than Intended
Similar to the previous warning sign, many food addicts find they eat more of their trigger food than they intended. For example, an individual addicted to potato chips may intend only to eat a handful but finds they unintentionally managed to eat multiple bags.
Although many people can relate to accidentally eating more than planned, food addicts take this behavior to an unhealthy extreme. Each time they consume more of the trigger food, the pleasure experienced compels them to keep eating more and more.
3. Feeling Withdrawal Symptoms When Not Eating Specific Foods
Like addictive drugs, food addicts can experience withdrawal when not eating certain foods.
As the person continues causing the release of dopamine in their brain by overeating trigger foods, their brain can become dependent on these chemicals and fail to function normally without them.
Common symptoms of food addiction withdrawal include:
- Agitation or irritability
- Muscle cramps
- Low self-esteem or feelings of guilt or self-hatred
- Suicidal thoughts
4. Unable to Quit Eating Despite Negative Consequences
As the food addict becomes dependent on the feelings of pleasure triggered by highly palatable foods, it becomes harder for them to stop despite the toll food addiction takes on their mental and physical health.
The most obvious risks are related to obesity and body weight issues, but other consequences can include severe health conditions and mental health disorders.
Expected negative consequences of food addiction or compulsive eating behaviors include:
- Extreme weight gain or weight loss
- Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa
- Feelings of intense shame, guilt, and self-hatred
- Emotional detachment or numbness
- Suicidal ideation
- Missing work or social opportunities to eat instead
- Substance abuse
- Type II Diabetes
- Digestive Problems
- Kidney/Liver Disease
- Heart disease
5. Feeling Guilty After But Eating Again Soon
Many food addicts experience the ruthless cycle of overeating their trigger foods, feeling incredibly guilty but unable to stop themselves from overeating again soon after.
While it’s not uncommon to feel a little guilty after eating something you know isn’t good for you, food addiction guilt is more extreme.
The guilt food addicts feel can be intensely distressing and lead to harmful eating behaviors like restricting food intake or purging.
Due to their lack of control over eating habits, addicts may experience a constant yo-yo between overeating, restricting food to “undo the damage,” only to overeat again.
6. Hiding Eating From Others
Feeling shame or embarrassment about food addiction behaviors is very common, often leading addicts to hide their eating habits by eating secretly or isolating themselves during bouts of eating trigger foods.
Food addicts may also lie or avoid answering questions about their food consumption when family members or friends ask. Unfortunately, if addicts are experiencing health problems, they may also conceal their food addiction from doctors and mental health providers.
7. Repeatedly Failing to Set Limits on Eating
Like other addictions, food addicts typically struggle to set and maintain limits for themselves.
For example, someone may plan only to allow themselves a certain amount of candy only to find they’ve eaten the entire bag and can’t stop from obtaining even more to continue feelings of pleasure.
Food addicts may fail to set and keep these limits due to impulsive behavior or rationalizing why they deserve to splurge due to stress or other events. Only afterward does the reality of their overeating set in, usually triggering intense shame and guilt.
8. Avoiding Social or Work Functions to Eat Instead
Addiction to food can take over a person’s life, causing them to eat trigger foods instead of attending meaningful events like family gatherings, work functions, or school requirements.
Food addicts may also purposely avoid certain social events or gatherings for fear that trigger foods will be present. They believe they can’t trust themselves to not overeat in front of family and friends.
What Should I Do If I Notice Warning Signs of Food Addiction?
If you suspect you or a loved one may have a food addiction, many options are available to you.
Although food addiction is not listed as a diagnosis in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), many healthcare providers specialize and provide diagnoses.
You can start by completing food addiction questionnaires to get a good idea of the criteria for the condition. Keep in mind this does not replace a formal diagnosis.
Speaking with a doctor or mental health professional and getting an evaluation can also help determine if you have a food addiction.
Treatment for food addiction typically includes behavioral therapy, support groups, and eating disorder treatments for any co-occurring eating disorders.
How Can Certain Food Lead To Addiction?
According to the most commonly used scale applied to food addiction, the Yale Food Addiction Scale, certain highly palatable foods have a higher potential of becoming trigger foods than others.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale’s list of trigger foods includes:
- Ice cream
- White bread
These foods are high in sugar, fats, and salt, often falling under the junk food category. While not all of these foods are strictly unhealthy, they tend to trigger dopamine release in the brain’s reward center.
Does Having an Eating Disorder Lead to Food Addiction?
Eating disorders and food addiction are two different conditions typically caused by different mechanisms.
Food addiction is only related to the dependence of certain brain chemicals released while eating trigger foods while eating disorders are often caused by body image issues or anxieties.
Although different, these conditions often overlap or co-occur in an individual. For example, a food addict may gain weight from their food addiction and address the weight gain by restricting (anorexia) or purging (bulimia). Keeping a highly calorie-restrictive diet can also lead to binge eating.
So eating disorders and food addiction don’t always cause each other, but they can be related depending on circumstances and how the food addict chooses to handle their addiction.
Finding Help for Food Addiction
Food addiction can be difficult to notice in yourself or a loved one. However, there are many treatment options if you suspect you or someone you care about has a food addiction.
Food addiction treatment typically only involves behavioral therapy and support groups. You can start by speaking to a doctor or therapist about your food addiction.
However, if you don’t have a doctor or therapist and don’t know where to start, you can find treatment near you through SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or by calling 1-800-662-4357 (HELP).
FAQs on Food Addiction Warning Signs
Is food addiction an eating disorder?
No. Food addiction is classified as a behavioral addiction, similar to gambling addiction or shopping addiction, caused by a dependence on the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system.
On the other hand, eating disorders are mental illnesses often caused by body image issues, anxiety, and unhealthy relationships with food. While the two conditions can co-occur, they are entirely different diagnoses.
What are the signs of food addiction?
Common signs of food addiction include:
- Eating large amounts of certain foods, even when full
- Feeling guilty after eating certain foods but being unable to stop
- Continuing to eat trigger foods despite negative health consequences
- Hiding or lying about eating unhealthy foods or trigger foods
- Struggling to set and maintain limits on eating certain foods
- Having intense cravings for certain foods even when full
- Eating more of a certain food than intended, even to the point of being ill
- Extreme weight gain or weight loss
- Avoiding social outings to eat trigger foods or out of fear trigger foods will be present.
How do people overcome food addiction?
Food addiction is treatable through behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to help patients identify and alter negative thought patterns that lead to addictive food-related behaviors.
What are highly addictive foods?
Yale Food Addiction Scale’s list of trigger foods is the most common scale to assess high-risk foods for food addiction. These foods are usually very high in fat, salt, and sugar and usually are more effective at triggering the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain.
These foods include:
- Ice cream
- White bread